Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Miketz

This week’s parshah, Miketz, details Joseph’s life in Egypt.  Joseph is our Jewish ancestor who lives his life blending into the larger culture around him.  He holds his covenantal identity in his heart, but he appears outwardly like anyone else.  

  We love the details of the story because we all want to teach our children to do what Joseph did.  Hearing Pharaoh’s concerns, Joseph describes the job needed to solve the problem, and then applies for that job.  

  In fact, everything goes beautifully until his family arrives.  Joseph must now find a way to blend his worlds into one identity.  Creating an identity that prospers in a dominant culture is challenging enough, but it becomes even more layered when two cultures are vying for our identities.  

  Chanukah is the holiday that speaks to us of a time when we tried blending cultural identities only to find that the dominant culture around us didn’t want the blend – it wanted assimilation.  This week we celebrate recognizing that important difference as we insisted on self-defining.  Chanukah marks a time when we encountered identity questions from the outside as well as from the inside.  One of the strongest lessons of Chanukah is that we do not live isolated from other cultures, but we do not ever forfeit our Jewish core, or our right to define our own identities.  

Eight little candles that remind us of the spiritual strength that lies within each of us as we navigate a complex world of cultural offerings.

      I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayeshev

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, begins the Joseph narratives with all its beautiful complexities.  It begins by telling us that Joseph would bring bad reports of his brothers to his father, Jacob.  It then says that Jacob loves Joseph, and his brothers hate him. Most of the commentaries depict Joseph as privileged and spoiled —he is the favourite son who tells tales about his brothers.  But the Torah may be painting a different picture.

On the fateful day of Joseph’s kidnapping, Jacob sends him to check on his brothers.  As we follow him through his day, we see that his brothers are not where they’re supposed to be.  In fact, they’re camped by a trade route.  It begs the question of what they are doing with their father’s sheep near a trade route.  Perhaps these brothers are not as innocent as they seem.

As the story develops, we see the immorality of the brothers, including the cowardly lies that plunge their father into decades of mourning.  Given all the details, we might consider that they have been poaching their father’s sheep and selling them on the trade routes. This might be part of the ‘bad reports’ that Joseph was trying to tell his father.

The complex issues of the Joseph story start at home where he is faced with a conflict of morality.  His life journey will always centre on moments of moral choice, as do ours.  Our days are filled with moral conflicts that are usually small, but still quite meaningful.  When to speak up about something and when to let it go; when to confront and when to negotiate.  The Torah wastes no time showing us that the challenges Joseph faces appear in our lives all the time.

  There are no easy answers and no single solution to these nuanced moments

of choice.  At times we have done wrong, and stand in the footsteps of the brothers, at times we have been hurt, and stand where Jacob stood, and at times we have tried to resolve conflict, and only made it worse – we stand in Joseph’s shoes.

The power of these narratives is we see that healing can only start when each person owns the part they played and stops searching for someone to blame. 

Just another reason to cherish this beautiful narrative.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayishlach

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, tells of Jacob wrestling with an angel, and receiving the name ‘Israel’.  The image of a person and an angel entangled with each other is both beautiful and empowering – and then the angel hits below the belt.  Needing to release himself, the angel targets Jacob’s thigh, injuring his sciatic nerve.  Jacob will bear the injury and the pain of it for the rest of his life.

Two opposite events are occurring simultaneously that night.  Jacob is being blessed with the name ‘Israel’, while at the same time he is being physically injured.  The blessing will grow through time, as his descendants learn of its meaning, but the injury will also grow, as Jacob ages and the pain progresses.  The positive and the negative are sitting side by side.

The Torah tells us of both events, and then tells us to remember them both in who we are and in what we do.  Jacob’s descendants are the Israelites, and today, all Jews know we are the nation, Israel.  At the same time, the Torah tells us we must refrain from eating any meat from the back half of an animal that might contain the relevant nerve.  It is not the meat that isn’t permitted, it’s the nerve.  The Torah has told us that as we bear the name of the blessing that was bestowed, we must always remember the injury of that night.

Judaism sits in the covenant with God, but a blessing is not the same thing as protection.  As Jacob is blessed, he is injured, and the Torah tells us to remember the injury.  

All this happens on the night before Jacob is to reunite with his brother, Esau, his twin who has sworn to kill him.  Jacob has prepared his camp for war, even as he is soliciting for peace.  We are taught to cherish the blessings of Israel, while we simultaneously understand that danger and injuries are still part of this world, and we take steps accordingly.  

The power of Jacob’s encounter with the angel is the choice of perspective we see.  Two things happened that night, and although Jacob will live with the physical pain of his injury, we never hear of it again.  He has focused on the blessing of becoming Israel, and that is the lesson he teaches us most clearly.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachaels’ Thoughts on Parshat Vayetzei

This week’s Torah reading, Vayetzei, contains Jacob’s dream of a ladder to the sky with angels ascending and descending.  Jacob is fleeing from his brother, Esau, and must leave his home for the first time.  God pronounces covenant to Jacob, and promises him the land of Israel, and the wealth of descendants.  God also pledges to accompany Jacob wherever he goes, and return him to his homeland.  It’s a beautiful and reassuring moment.

     However, when Jacob wakes up and revisits his dream, he strikes a different agreement with God.  Jacob pledges that if God stays with him, keeps him safe, gives him food and clothing while he’s away, as well as returns him safely to his father’s house, only then will Jacob make God his God.  Jacob has turned the covenantal promise into a conditional one.  This is the instance when we watch covenant become a partnership of pledge.  It is Jacob who sets out the details of a human response.   

      We live our Judaism within the frame of our history and our ancestral visions.  But within that is the empowerment of each person to expand and define.  Our prayers include Jacob’s innovations, as we always include prayers for safety, peace, protection and sustenance.  Yet we also know that personal prayers are defined by each person.  Our Sages taught us that our formal prayers must always be accompanied by our personal ones.

      Jacob was leaving his home in fear of his life.  God assuring him of spiritual companionship and future descendants did not speak to his human moment.  The visions of our ancestors changed the world, but they each began with a personal yearning they put into words.

      At times, formal prayer can feel distant and opaque – those are the times to remember Jacob, his dream and his pledge.  Jewish prayer is an open door to cross and find the comfort of words Jews have said for millenia, or to find the truth of the moment and express only that to God.

     I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

      Shabbat shalom,

      Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Toldot

This Shabbat we read parshat Toldot, and the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau.  It is also the Shabbat before Remembrance Day, November 11, as we remember our Canadian soldiers and veterans.  It’s interesting that these two things speak to each other with relevance for today.

The story of Jacob and Esau resonates as the story of two brothers in conflict. Jacob trades the stew he has made for Esau’s blessing as the eldest son. Esau feels betrayed when he later realizes he will not receive that blessing.  Jacob flees from his brother, Esau, who has pledged to kill him.  

       From Jacob’s point of view, the blessing was obtained fairly and legally.  From Esau’s point of view, it was a fleeting momentary decision, and doesn’t speak to the emotional reality of losing his father’s blessing.  Jacob sees the covenant while Esau sees his father’s love.  Both brothers sit in a single event with conflicting perspectives that cannot be reconciled.  It is the story of every human conflict —it is headed for war.

As we cross time from the ancient world to today, we often sit in this reality.  We struggle with warfare, aiming for peace which is often elusive.  Remembrance Day is a time for us to honour those people who risk everything to bring peace.  The Torah teaches us that peace is not a natural state, it is something to be solicited, pursued, negotiated, and fought for.  On Remembrance Day we remember the values for which someone would risk everything.  We honour the people as well as their vision.

       Jacob will eventually solicit Esau for peace.  In doing so, he will offer back the riches he has obtained, and Esau will refuse them.  The brothers are able to close the pain of the past and consider the hope of a future.

      On Remembrance Day, we remember our soldiers, veterans, and heroes.  We remember the pain of their loss, as we affirm knowing that everything they did, and everything they risk, is to consider a hope for our future.

       I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Chayei Sarah

This week, in parshat Chayei Sarah, the Torah tells us of Sarah’s passing.  Yet, when it speaks of the life of Sarah, our first matriarch, it begins with a strange phrase: “These were the lives of Sarah”.  We are struck by the plural forms. In fact, the name of the parshah, Chayei Sarah, translates as ‘the lives of Sarah’.

       Many of our commentaries offer beautiful insights into the choice of the plural.  One midrash offers the idea that all lives are connected through time, and therefore, every life is, in fact, a plural life.  It explains that when the book of Ecclesiastes said: “The sun rises and the sun sets”, the sun is understood as representing the brightness and warmth each of us brings to the world.  We’re told that before the sun sets – before we lose someone, it first rises -a new person has entered the world. The midrash points out that the Torah already told us that Rebecca, our next matriarch, was born, before it told us of the loss of Sarah.

            Rebecca is not the replacement of Sarah since people are not replaceable one with another.  The insight is for us to know that the world of relationships we build is limitless, as our relationships with others never end but build on each other.  Our lives connect with others, and when someone is lost to us, we may consider that, in time, some of the values they embodied may be found to shine in other people.  

        One opinion states that we all live many lives in our lifetime –that is why we find the plural noun here.  Sarah lived one lifetime but led many lives within that time.  During those lives, she influenced others and left an impression that stays with them.  Sarah continues to live her many lives even today.

        The eternal flow of sunrises and sunsets, as seen in the lives we live and the lives we touch, lets us know that the uniqueness of each person extends beyond anything we could contain in the singular –we need the plural.

        I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayera

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayera

This week’s parshah, Vayera, contains powerful concepts, not just for the ancient world but for our modern one.  We hear of strangers visiting Abraham and Sarah, and we suspect they’re angels.  Today, we often encounter people and are left with the impression they are more than they appear.  We glimpse the infinite depth that lies within each person.  Later in the parshah, Abraham argues with God about Sodom and creates a new moral dialogue.  His argument sets our understanding of how righteousness must be weighed and valued more than is evil – 10 righteous people can carry a region of thousands.  God agrees.  We also read of a desperate moment with Lot and his daughters that begins the lineage that will give us the Messiah.  We remember that sometimes the darkness of the moment can blind us to the redemption of the next moment.

   Yet, with all these tremendous perspectives, we usually focus on one element of the parshah, the binding of Isaac.  It is one of the most challenging and difficult texts we read, and we have yet to explain it in a way that sits comfortably in our hearts.  But because it disturbs us, we focus there and don’t value the positive messages in the rest of the parshah.

Sometimes in our daily lives, we experience things the same way we read this parshah.  Each day is filled with beautiful and powerful nuanced moments that positively impact how we think and feel, yet we will focus on something that disturbed us.  

  We protect ourselves by seeing what is negative, but we also deprive ourselves of seeing the positive growth in each day.  This week’s parshah invites us to broaden our views, seek the positive moments and value the change in perspectives they bring.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Lech Lecha

This week, we meet Judaism’s visionaries: Abraham and Sarah.  God reaches out with an invitation to take a journey: lech lecha.  It’s a Hebrew phrase that is often difficult to translate.  The first word, lech, is the command ‘go’, which we immediately recognize.  However, the second word, lecha, is out of place in this phrase.  Lecha means ‘for you’, which has generated many commentaries on how this journey will benefit them, it is a journey ‘for you’.  

But the word lecha doesn’t only mean ‘for you’, it also means ‘to you’.

It now suggests that the journey of covenant, and Judaism, is a journey of self-discovery.  At the end of the road we travel, we are to meet our true selves.  Lech lecha now translates as ‘go toward yourself’.   

For the first three generations of our ancestry, our Matriarchs and Patriarchs each embark on their own lech lecha journey that takes them to different Jewish realities.  Each of their journeys is unique.  Once Jacob, our last ancestor, lies on his deathbed, he passes it to his descendants as an inherited legacy.

Each Jewish person inherits the invitation.  Lech lecha, walk a path of unknown discoveries filled with challenges and surprises.  It is never guaranteed to be only good, but it is always guaranteed to feel right when you find your unique lech lecha path.

We sometimes make a life decision that can shape the years ahead, but the life journey of lech lecha sets our feet on a path that began long before us, and will extend far beyond us.  The future imagined by Abraham and Sarah, and the vision they bring to the world, is only surpassed by the courage of this moment as they answer God and take a first step.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Noah

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Noah

It takes ten generations for the world to move from Adam to Noah, ten generations to go from creation to destruction. Yet, ten generations after Noah, we will read of Abraham. Throughout the ages, Jewish commentaries have compared Noah and Abraham, as they represent such different portraits of a hero.

Noah, knowing the world will be destroyed, doesn’t argue with God – he simply obeys.  Abraham, being told a region of Sodom will be destroyed, mounts a moral argument with God about sweeping judgments.  It seems that Abraham is the model of a hero, yet Noah and Abraham are both described with the same word: ‘Tzadik’.

The Sages tell us that a righteous person, a ‘tzadik’, is someone who stands firm in their morals, no matter what is going on around them.  In other words, a hero is defined by context.  Noah is righteous because he doesn’t have blood on his hands.  He doesn’t actively save people, but he doesn’t actively kill them, which was the cultural norm of his time.  He is righteous because he is blameless.  Abraham is righteous because he moves beyond being blameless and speaks for the potential victim.  His argument with God is not for those who are suffering, it is for those who will suffer in the future.  In this regard, both Noah and Abraham stand side by side in their righteousness – they both take their cultural norms one step further.

When we think of Torah in our lives, we do not think of it as standing far from us and our culture.  On the contrary, we contextualize Torah into our lives and have it strengthen us to take even one step forward.  A hero could be someone who stays calm when others are lashing out, or someone who sees the outcome of suffering and tries to intervene before it starts, or someone who gives their time to support someone in a culture where every minute is accounted for and scheduled.  

Noah and Abraham, so distinctly different, both show us there are heroes among us all the time, we just need to understand that subtle gestures can also be heroic.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on parashat Bereishit

Rachael’s Thoughts on parashat Bereishit

We have danced, celebrated, fasted, and prayed for weeks, as we entered the High Holidays, moved through them, and now truly begin our Jewish new year.  This Shabbat, we begin reading the Torah again with the first chapters of Genesis, parashat Bereishit.

           We read of the beginnings of the universe, the world as we know it, and the human condition.  Einstein believed that the universe is not a defined, static thing, but that it continues to expand.  Our Sages taught us that creation renews itself every day, and that the creative elements God embedded into the universe will always renew.  Our worlds of science and faith are both telling us that nothing around us stands still – everything moves toward growth and expansion.

           With that in mind, we do not read the book of Genesis again, we read it anew.  It has new things to tell us, unique perspectives we haven’t heard before.  The entire Torah begins with the word ‘Bereishit’ – ‘in the beginning’.  It begins with the letter ‘b’ (bet), the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our commentaries point out that it would be more appropriate to begin the Torah with the first letter, ‘a’ (aleph).  One reason is to show that there is always something more to know, something that pre-exists, something connected with ‘a’ (aleph) that is hidden and inviting us to explore.  But the Torah must begin with the second letter because we know we are entering a process that is already moving forward.

           Though we are careful  not to read Torah searching for endings – we engage with Torah as we search for beginnings.  Each person finds their unique starting place, knowing there is so much that exists before them – before anything they recognize.  The goal is not to unlock a mystery of the past, it is to courageously step in and enter the expansion.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael